Nearly everyone has heard of the great American playwrights: Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Not so many people know George S. Kaufman, which is surprising considering how he dominated American theater during the middle of the last century.
For 37 straight years (1921-58) there was a play on Broadway either written or directed by Kaufman, a record which will almost certainly never be broken. The plays he directed were important and legendary (Guys and Dolls, Of Mice and Men. The Front Page), and the plays he wrote have proved to be our most enduring comedies. Kaufman was a vivid personality—gangly, baleful, his long face made longer by high piled hair above and a large bow tie below. He was not handsome in a conventional sense, but was well known as a ladies man: after a movie star’s diary recounting some intimate moments showed up in print, Kaufman was named “Public Lover Number One.” Yet he, along with his fabulous contemporaries Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S. J.Perelman, Ring Lardner and Dorothy Parker, are no longer household names.
There are reasons for this. Partly it’s because Kaufman (along with the others I have named) was a genius of comedy, and comedy has a reputation for being less important and more dated than tragedy. But there’s more to it. Kaufman was the master of Broadway, but his mastery was always achieved through collaboration. He only wrote one play on his own. The rest (including two Pulitzer Prize winners) were co-authored with contemporaries like the George and Ira Gershwin, the Marx Brothers, Edna Ferber, Morrie Ryskind and Moss Hart. Kaufman wasn’t just a divinely gifted wit (Groucho Marx called him “my personal god”), he was first and last a pure man of the theater, and theatre is always a team effort. He was a rigorous technician and craftsman, the guy you could count on to stay up late to cut, rewrite, and reshape the molten mess of drama into something sharp, and firm and satisfying. He was the ultimate “theatre doctor”—the one you called to fix a show that was in trouble out of town. He was a fanatic about keeping the narrative ball rolling, even in a musical. He called Frank Loesser’s great songs in Guys and Dolls “lobby numbers” because each time one started he’d race to the lobby for a cigarette, muttering “Good God, do we have to do every number this son-of-a-bitch ever wrote?”
You Can’t Take It With You, which THEATREWORKS is producing for the holidays, has no lobby numbers. When music plays on stage (Beethoven on the xylophone) the story keeps going. The play was written swiftly, in a few weeks, when Kaufman and Hart were clearly in a groove.
Kaufman gave Hart first billing as author, because he believed the one with the idea of the play should come first. And Moss Hart had a great idea: take a bohemian family living in contented bedlam and invade it with threats from Wall Street and the IRS. Make it end happily. But you feel Kaufman’s touch everywhere, in the abundant wit, the sharp exchanges, the giddy playfulness, all underpinned with a firm and economic dramatic structure. This is the play Woody Allen found and read in a library when he was 8 years old and laughed out loud. It was funny then, and it’s funny now: the comedy is still of our time.
You might think this an odd choice for a holiday play, since there’s not a hint of Christmas anywhere, and none of the usual claptrap that comes with the season. Kaufman was notorious for appearing on a Christmas television show and expressing the hope that this would be the one program that didn’t include singing “Silent Night.” He was famously unsentimental. Moss Hart remembered once trying to pay him a public tribute, and seeing Kaufman, sensing compliments to come, rise in one sudden movement, “like a large bird frighted out of its solitude in the marshes.” He fled the room. Yet, as is often the case, this aggressive mask of anti-sentimentality concealed and protected a tender heart. You will see this tenderness unmasked, alive and well in the Sycamore family in You Can’t Take it With You. I suspect the play’s producers knew what they were doing when they decided to open the show on December 14, 1936. It played for 837 performances. It has been regularly revived all over the country ever since. It is truly a treasure, a golden glowing play by our greatest Master of Broadway.